By the time Anne Tyler published “Teenage Wasteland” late in 1983, the heyday of the hippie counterculture was more than a decade in the past. Initially it seems that in this grim story she steps back in time to set it in the early 1970s when a song written by Pete Townshend, popularly known as “Teenage Wasteland,” was brought out under the title “Baba O’Riley” by the Who, a leading British rock group, in an album of 1971. The lyrics of that song represent a youth culture alienated from the larger society within which it existed, a culture whose members believed that the general public regarded them as useless, irresponsible outsiders. Consequently, they remained distant from all but each other in the “teenage wasteland,” a phrase repeated several times as that song’s refrain.
The song and this phrase in particular characterize the lifestyle—actual, pretended, or longed-for—of teenagers seeking escape from restriction and commitment during the Vietnam War years. For many, conventional values were derided in favor of living free with the help of pot, alcohol, the heavy pounding of loud rock music, and a lack of inhibition.
In Tyler’s story, Donny Coble, the 15-year-old son of Matt and Daisy, is drawn into this way of life. Although no definite explanation is given why or how his attraction to it began, one is suggested in Daisy’s remembering that he “had acted lost and bewildered when [Amanda] his younger sister was born” (“TW” 258). Now that Donny has become the principal subject of their concern, Amanda also finds it difficult to gain the attention of her parents when she tries to communicate with them. Eventually she, too, appears to turn away from home, presumably over parental disregard for her in favor of Donny.
“Teenage Wasteland” is neither Donny’s story nor hers, however, but that of their parents, especially their mother, whose is the central consciousness. She is an experienced elementary-school teacher who has anxiously counseled her deviant son, assisted him with his homework, and met with his teachers on request; nor has his father withheld his support. Both are bewildered as his grades slide down and reports on his misbehavior indicate not only poor study habits but defiance of the school’s rules, most notably on smoking and drinking.
The principal of Donny’s private school injudiciously recommends that the boy study with a tutor, Calvin Beadle, who has had “considerable psychological training” (258), and Donny’s parents agree to see him. When they drive to Cal’s home, which is also his office, they are surprised to see how unprofessional he acts, as if he were more eager to be one of the teens himself than to help them resolve their problems. He lends Donny his album by the Who that includes “Teenage Wasteland,” and, as Donny’s father soon recognizes, the household itself represents one (263). Apathetic regarding Donny’s grades, discipline, and behavior, Cal is a perverse carryover from the closing years of the disillusioning Vietnam era, professing a desire to liberate the young people in his charge from the rigors of control, responsibility, commitment, and routine study. Instead, as he tells Daisy, what they need is to build their “self-esteem” by being trusted (not necessarily trustworthy) and become “whole” children (262). Cal’s way of helping them work toward such self-actualization is to send them to rock concerts and let them play games, and he does not include studying in their agenda. Personally, Cal resents control; he divorced his wife because she was a “really controlling lady,” Donny tells his mother (262). Whatever “undermines his self-esteem” is bad for Donny, Cal advises Daisy, who succumbs to his counsel because she recalls that “it was awful being young.” “She’d had a miserable adolescence herself and had often sworn no child of hers would ever be that unhappy” (261).
To some extent Tyler seems to have been writing autobiographically when penning such sentiments. In “Still Just Writing,” an essay she published three years earlier, she asserts, “I hated childhood,” but to overcome that hate, she added that she had “spent it sitting behind a book waiting for adulthood to arrive” (“SJW” 13). Her strategy does not hold for Donny, whose incorrigible behavior leads to his expulsion. Rather than go home, however, he returns to Cal, who recommends another private school for him. Rejecting that idea, Donny’s parents end his association with Cal and send their son to a public school, where his grades improve slightly, but he soon runs away from home and does not return. Futilely waiting for him, Daisy lies awake at night blaming herself, not yet realizing that Amanda seems to be moving in the same direction. In her mind, Daisy sees the shadow of fence posts in late sunlight over Cal’s yard, where Donny and the other boys—either hoodlums already or incipient ones (“TW” 263)—had played basketball. The yard is “littered with last year’s leaves and striped with bars of sunlight as white as bones bleached and parched and cleanly picked” (266), suggesting that the teenage wasteland is a dead end.
Not to be overlooked is that “Teenage Wasteland” was first published in Seventeen, a popular monthly read mainly by teenage girls with interests and values closer to those of their parents than to the freewheeling ones of Donny’s girlfriend, Miriam, whom he meets at Cal’s. To Daisy, she is “an unappealing girl with blurry lipstick and masses of rough red hair” who wears “a short, bulky jacket that would not look out of place on a motorcycle” (262). That Tyler makes this association with rowdy, violent bikers in mind and not motorcyclists generally should be clear from her mentioning those among Cal’s “pupils” who look and act like hoodlums. Miriam would not probably be a reader of Seventeen; nor would most of Cal’s other pupils, who bolster their “self-esteem” by rejecting conventional values and obligations. Yet the teenage girls to whom the magazine does appeal can perceive from Tyler’s story that such licentious living offers young people like them but a blind alley to nowhere, possibly with no turning back. Quickly enough they can see that the teenage wasteland is not for them.
Donny is not the only missing child in Tyler’s fiction; children often disappear, for various reasons. For instance, in “The Artificial Family” (1975), Toby Scott becomes the stepfather of five-year-old Samantha, whom he cherishes, and when his wife suddenly departs with the girl, leaving no forwarding address, he is devastated. Another example appears in The Amateur Marriage (2004), where Michael and Pauline Anton, continually at odds since their courtship, suffer grievously when their teenage daughter, Lindy— whose problems directly reflect Donny’s—runs away; when she finally reappears years later with a different name and a child of her own, they are relieved but still bewildered over how it all happened. But in “Teenage Wasteland,” Donny’s disappearance seems terminal with Tyler’s closing image in Daisy’s memory of “bones bleached and parched and cleanly picked”; nothing earlier in the story suggests hope. If not already too late, by giving more attention to Amanda, they may be more successful with her.
Tyler, Anne. The Amateur Marriage. New York: Knopf, 2004.
———. “The Artificial Family.” Southern Review N.S., 11 (Summer 1975): 615–621.
———. “Still Just Writing.” In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
———. “Teenage Wasteland.” In The Editor’s Choice: New American Stories. Vol. 1. Comp. George E. Murphy, Jr. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1985.